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Tricky Talk

Solo talker Martin Moran dredges up some painful memories in his one-man play 'The Tricky Part'

By Marianne Messina

AT THE San Jose Repertory Theatre, two parallel crescent-shaped walls cut across midstage and thrust the performance forward, close to the audience. The setting, a lonely bar stool and a night stand with the picture of a 12-year-old boy on it (Paul Steinberg, scenic design) could be called stark or bare, and these would describe the approach solo performer Martin Moran has chosen for telling his tale. When Moran emerges from between the walls in his jeans and shirt, joking about San Jose's saintly street names—"Wherever there's traffic, there's a saint"—and reminding the audience to turn off cell phones, he might easily be someone from the Rep's front office come to introduce the show.

This absence of fanfare strengthens two themes of Moran's one-man spoken memoir The Tricky Part: the idea of self-acceptance and the challenge of personal vulnerability. After young Moran hears how a biblical beggar turned out to be God, he decides that the tricky part would be seeing God in the face of the schoolyard bully. Moran opens the tale in 2002 as he's on his way to confront the man who ruined his childhood. But that narrative is interrupted by scenes from Moran's Catholic school boyhood in Denver, a la Angela's Ashes, in which we meet various nuns, chums and teachers and hear some of the confusing messages being dispensed like condoms around the topic of sex.

Though waxing overly precious during early poetic passages, Moran soon draws us in with humorously startling childhood perspectives and odd combinations of poetry and cynicism. "There was always something like grief or cheese caught in her throat," he says describing one nun's constricted way of speaking. As Moran sits on his stool, legs crossed, he keeps returning to the idea that we get messages from our bodies—often clapping the hammer end of his fist to his solar plexus as if there are still knots there. "The secret of bodies," we learn, is that they can as easily betray as they can speak truths.

And the grace in Moran's play is that it never turns away from this face of confusion. Curious phallic double entendres run like a twisted joke through the play, often in the most melancholy moments. Moran talks of triggers and getting big in the same breath, or he tells how the boy found solace from his confused state by singing "tie me kangaroo down, keep me cockatoo ..." Anyone sensitive to the references won't know whether to laugh or shudder.

Perhaps two-thirds of the way through the play, the lights go down, and a narrow spot lights only Moran's head and shoulders (Russell H. Champa, lighting, under director Seth Barrish). And in this dark "campfire" setting, Moran confides the story of his seduction/abuse by the man he looked up to. The description of the event is not particularly graphic, but it's creeping and intense, enough to drive a couple of people from the theater on opening night. Their loss.

This has to be the scene that earned the play its Obie, because of its emotional crosswinds, its tight fusion of all the childhood tales, its honest grounding in a transformative experience and its poetic rendering of an encounter with "the force that pushes up the trees." This compact segment is neither pretty nor straightforward, but it calls on us to delve into our own experiences with that force, whatever they may be. The ending, with Moran confronting the monster from his past, is also exceptionally brave in what it doesn't do. It leaves the sense that there is more road to be covered on this journey.

The Tricky Part, a San Jose Repertory Theatre presentation, runs Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (no evening show Nov. 13) through Nov. 13. Tickets are $22-$55. (408.367.7255)

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From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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